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Americans Look for New Cheese Options

June 1, 2006
The American palate is seeking out new cheeses, even as research improves the old standbys.

It's a great time to be in the cheese business. In fact, according to Productscan Online (www.productscan.com), the cheese category experienced the greatest rise in new food launches from December 2005 to February 2006, growing more than 150 percent.

Other categories Meals & Entrees, Pizza, Hot Snacks and Sandwiches, which often incorporate cheese, grew 18 percent during the same period, adding to cheese's momentum. And a cheese and whey plant is the biggest new plant project planned for 2006, we reported in our April issue, the second year in a row whey leads the way.

In the past few years, two shifts in cheese preference occurred, according to the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Assn. (IDDBA) (www.iddba.org). Gruyere beat out other varieties for the greatest sales increase, in both volume and dollars, between mid-2004 and mid-2005. Overall, however, cheddar, at 10.28 lbs. per capita, or more than three-quarters of all American cheese, and mozzarella, at 9.92 lbs. per capita, or more than three-quarters of all Italian cheese sales, remain the two most popular varieties. It's notable mozzarella sales increased 2.8 percent in 2004, and wedged out cheddar as the leading cheese produced in the U.S. for the first time.

Expectations are America's cheese consumption will grow from 31 lbs. per person in 2003 to 33 lbs. by 2013, according to IDDBA (see graph below). Projections are being spurred by demand for specialty cheeses, authentic Hispanic cheeses (Hispanics are the most prevalent shoppers of dairy in general) and new varieties arriving via restaurants, foodservice and retail, expanding American palates.

Nutritional concern is another growth driver. Research shows the way to good health is three servings of calcium a day, and preliminary research finds eating three servings of cheese can help manage weight.

"A lot of innovative cheese R&D is occurring in the whole health and wellness area," says Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, which is supported by Rosemont, Ill.-based Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) (www.innovatewithdairy.com). "There's renewed interest in low-fat cheeses because of both adult and childhood obesity. What's unique this time around is we're looking at low-fat cheeses that taste far better than the original ones, in retail, foodservice and industrial venues."

Consumer expectations of a low-fat retail cheese are very different from those in a foodservice/ingredient application. "Attributes are different when using low-fat cheese in frozen entrees or frozen pizza or further processed foods," he explains. "We've done successful work using low-fat cheese in cracker applications; there you look at both the nutritional aspect and the desired flavor profile that must survive the cracker baking process."

Specialty trends show an increase in demand for organic, Kosher, artisan and farmstand cheeses, and the myriad of flavors available are becoming more popular, reports Gourmet Retailer. Adding fruit, chocolate and peanut butter to cheese has expanded it into the dessert course.

In supermarkets, 367 cheese products rolled out in 2005, according to Mintel, more than double new product introductions in yogurt. Processed American (566 million lbs.) is the largest slice in retail, followed by cheddar (536 million lbs.), and mozzarella (261 million lbs.).

The American palate also has branched out into specialty and artisan cheeses, shown by the substantial growth in sales of smaller categories, led by havarti (up nearly 40 percent), asiago (up 35 percent) and gruyere (up 24 percent). Sliced natural cheese sales were up as well, to $620 million, according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI), led by private label, Plymouth, Wis.-based Sargento Foods LLC and Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill.

Low-fat/no-fat redux

Processors often want stronger or different flavors in ingredient cheeses than consumers might want in a table cheese, according to Sommer. "DMI is working on low-fat and no-fat mozzarella cheeses for pizza applications," he says. Sommer adds that controlled functionality of cheese, especially in pizza and other uses of mozzarella, and controlling browning in heating applications are ripe areas for R&D.

"Many pizzerias now use harsh ovens with higher temperatures to push product faster," he says. "Higher temperatures stress and over-brown cheese, so we're working on technical ways to make it more resistant to browning. Another area of interest is melt restriction for appetizers or stuffed crust pizza. You don't want the cheese to overly ooze or squirt out, or end up with voids in the crust. We're working with natural cheeses to solve those problems."

Other areas in the health and wellness area include vitamin fortification of cheeses. "Studies show Americans don't get enough vitamin D, so Kraft Foods petitioned the FDA to increase the amount of vitamin D that can be added in cheese," Sommer says. "The FDA granted Kraft's petition, and the fortification level for vitamin D went from 89 International Units (IUs) of vitamin D per 100g cheese to 81 IUs vitamin D per 30g cheese, an increase of almost three times.

"There's also interest in adding vitamin A, minerals, calcium and probiotics. Usually associated with yogurt, probiotics are an excellent opportunity, since cheese is a very good medium for probiotic growth, survival and ultimate delivery. We've also done work increasing conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a healthy fatty acid for prevention of cardiovascular disease. Research shows grazed dairy animals have higher levels of CLA in their milk, thus there's more in cheese. We also can fortify cheese with omega-3 fatty acids, derived from fish oil, but the trick is not to end up with a fishy flavor."

To please calorie-counters and lovers of Hispanic flavors, Sargento recently introduced a reduced-fat, four-cheese Mexican blend.

It's an R&D challenge to work with Hispanic cheeses. "Unlike the common perception, Hispanic cheeses, such as queso blanco or queso fresco, are very bland and under-spiced," explains Sommer. "They have unique melt applications and profiles, and are low in acid, which means their pH is high. We've developed a process to get more acid, increased shelf-life, decreased watering off in a retail application, but yet keep the pH down."

Another area is controlling functionally for processed cheeses, according to Sommer. "We tend to think of processed cheese in single slices, but we're working on making processed feta, blue and Hispanic cheeses," he says. "Normally very crumbly, they can be processed for sliceability and portion control, especially important for foodservice applications." Sommer says customers and consumers want unique flavors. "Work is ongoing to deliver intense flavors in cheese, especially as an ingredient," he adds. "The flavor might be too intense for table cheese, but controls flavor profiles and reliability for frozen entrees, bread applications, breadsticks, or crackers. Cheeses in great demand in this category include parmesan, asiago, blue cheese and cheddar."

New product trends

"Kids tend to like milder flavors and always reach for string cheese, so they can play with and handle," declares Sommer. "We've developed unique kids flavored cheeses for retail and foodservice. We're working on adding kid-friendly flavors - green apple, banana, cotton candy or bubblegum - to cheese. The hope is kids will pick up on those snacks, both in retail and QSR [quick service restaurants], instead of higher sugar snacks."

Cheddar is the most popular table cheese and mozzarella (on pizza) is most popular as an ingredient for adults. "But that's changing somewhat," explains Sommer. "The population is aging, so feedback is that as taste buds desensitize, consumers seek more intense blue cheese and cheddar flavors. That's a reversal of the trend in the 1970s and '80s for milder flavors. Americans are more widely traveled and exposed to European varieties - Swiss cheeses from Switzerland and soft cheeses, like blue, camembert, brie and Roquefort, from France."

Sommer, in the cheese business more than 20 years, recalls in the 1980s and '90s the idea was to make standardized cheddars and mozzarellas. "That's changing; we want cheddars from Vermont to taste different than those from Wisconsin, Oregon or California, and those differences are being embraced."

More flavorful, unique cheeses, ethnic and health and wellness applications are the R&D challenges. "Because of changing demographics, interest is high in Hispanic cheeses," he says. "Hispanics tend to be very traditional; they want the same flavors and functionality their grandparents wanted. Unfortunately, we use the descriptor Hispanic too generally. Hispanic cheeses from Mexico have different flavor profiles, textures and names than those from Spain, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Central America and the Caribbean, so we are embracing those differentiations."

Another focus is mixed milk cheeses. "They include pecorino romano from Italy (made with sheep's milk), manchego from Spain (made with sheep's milk) and chevre from France (made with goat's milk).

"Historically we've thought of natural cheeses - colby, jack, mozzarella and cheddar - as one category and processed cheese - singles, Kraft Velveeta - as separate," Sommer points out. "A new trend is the blending of those cheeses. Called ‘tweeners,' they are not heavily processed, but contain emulsifying salts that natural cheese doesn't. The reason for blending is to get the best of both worlds - the flavor and uniqueness of natural, and the functionality of processed cheese. My prediction is there will be great interest in blending natural and processed cheese because you can build on the strength of both and bring some unique attributes to the table."

Battling obesity with dairy

Cheese consumption has been on the rise despite concerns about obesity. One reason may be some post-2000 research that links dairy consumption - probably the calcium in cheese and all dairy products - with an acceleration of weight loss for people on low-fat, calorie-restricted diets.

"Research demonstrates cheese can fit into a healthy diet," says Gregory Miller, executive vice president of innovation at DMI/National Dairy Council. "When you include three servings of dairy a day as part of a calorie-reduced diet, you can lose more weight as body fat than a calorie-restricted diet with one or less serving of dairy. These studies included cheese as a part of the three dairy food servings."

The dairy industry has gone full-speed ahead with ad campaigns based on the research despite no approved health claim from the FDA and criticism from Center for Science in the Public Interest and Physicians for Responsible Medicine.


We got 186 hits when we typed "cheese" into our search engine at www.foodprocessing.com. That's a lot to digest, but some of the top ones are:

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